Matt twisted back and forth on the bed, trying not to keep any of his back in contact with it for too long, keeping his ears covered, even though it didn’t help. He could still hear all of it, the words, the shouts, the screams, the static, the stereo, the systems of the building, which were old and so, so loud. His nose was assaulted by too many smells; he wasn’t sure how he was breathing. His clothes felt like they were rubbing his skin raw.
He thought Sister Agatha was speaking again. He thought she wasn’t in the room; she was walking over floor somewhere. She’d said there was someone to see him…he didn’t know how long ago; he couldn’t keep track of time anymore. “…doctors, clergy, no one has any idea what’s wrong with him. If you’ve heard of anything like this…”
“Confidential, m’am.” The voice was that of an adult, but Matt didn’t think he was that old. “But let me talk to him.”
Their footsteps were loud, maybe coming to him. They were, she was speaking as she opened his door. But the wind was too loud outside, and he couldn’t tell what she was saying. He thought maybe he should sit up or stand up or something, but he couldn’t get it together. More footsteps going away, Sister Agatha wasn’t coming in. Matt wanted to beg her to help again.
And then a broad, strong voice cut through it all with, “Good morning, Mr. Murdock. The nuns tell me you’ve been hearing things, and it’s been getting worse. Can you tell me what you’re hearing right now?”
“Everything!” He’d told the nuns that already. “You her, the others…” He couldn’t figure out any more than that. It was too noisy, too loud.
“Other what?” The man spoke very gently, more than anyone ever had to Matt, maybe. “Other people? Other voices?”
Matt struggled to answer. The man maybe decided to try something else: “Sister Agatha told me you had this problem when you first came here, but it wasn’t as bad. Can you tell me what you were hearing them? The nuns say you claimed you kept hearing the gunshot that killed your father.”
“I wasn’t, I…I didn’t say that…I didn’t say it right.” He wasn’t even sure what he’d said anymore; they must have misunderstood it, anyway. “I only heard it when it happened.”
“Your father was killed some way away from your apartment, wasn’t he?” The nuns had been quick to remind Matt of that, but this man sounded different. Sad, like they’d been, but thoughtful, as if he might actually believe what Matt was saying. “You were in the apartment at the time.”
“I heard it. It woke me up.” He shouldn’t cry. He did sometimes, when the noise and the death and the guilt were all too much, but it was a bad idea, because that just led to more smells and his face being sticky for hours and hours.
An inhale, a speed in thumping that might have been the man’s heart beating quicker, and then, “When I came in here, there were two girls standing outside talking to each other. They were introduced to me as Rose and Jane. Are they still standing there? Can you tell?”
“I don’t…” But then, he knew their voices, and… “I can hear them, I think, Rose just stopped talking and Jane started…” But he couldn’t keep track, everything else was drowning them out. “Wind’s too strong again,” he commented without thinking.
“The nuns talked to me as if you were having auditory hallucinations-that means they think you’re hearing imaginary things.” He sounded kind of awed. “One of them even said your ears are broken. But they’re not, are they? In fact, they’re working all too well.”
He was so relieved someone believed him, Matt blurted out, “It’s not just my ears. I could smell the blood on my dad from a fight long before he came through the door.”
The man’s came up to the bed. “May I take your hand and shake it?” Matt held his hand up in the air; the man’s hand was warm and a little sweaty. “My name is Agent Phil Coulson. I’m part of an organization that deals with a lot of things, including people like you, people who have unusual abilities, like seeing or hearing things other people can’t. Many of those people had the same kind of struggle you’re having right now, but thanks to us they’re now living normal lives. I would like to help you out.”
What was more so was how he was drawing all that into his memory right now, on his way to what might well prove his last meeting with Agent Coulson, although he knew that wasn’t likely, even if the man didn’t ask what Matt had suspected from the beginning he was eventually going to ask. He knew what the official purpose of this meeting was; it was time. That he was navigating the corridor so easily, completely undistracted, and no one even seemed worried if he could manage it anymore were all indications of that.
Indeed, when he knocked, heard Coulson call for him to come in, and did so, the first thing the other man said was, “Still using the cane?” After all, everyone here knew about his senses. Or even if they didn’t specifically know, they could guess pretty easily. This was that sort of place.
“It does make things easier,” Matt told him. “Besides, I know I’m supposed to appear to be a normal blind person now. That’s why you called me here, isn’t it? To talk about that?”
“Yes, and no,” said Coulson, and Matt knew he’d guessed right. “Sit down.”
When Matt did, he continued, “We finished all the paperwork this morning, and you officially have the green light to head back into the outside world, and have relatively little to do with us for the rest of your life if you so wish. We will appoint you a supervisor, of course, and they’ll check in with you from time to time, but I suspect you really won’t be bothered too much. You even have a choice where you can go; we can return you to St. Agnes, or we can try to find a foster family for you ourselves, although since I understand you’re going to be in position to resume school along with your peers in September, we should probably have you settled wherever you go in time for that.”
“But that’s not what you want me to do, is it?”
He could hear Coulson’s fingers fidgeting a little as he said, “I want you to understand, Mr. Murdock, whatever decision you make about this right now doesn’t have to be permanent; you can change your mind about it at any time over the next few years, and we’ll be ready to arrange things for you then. In fact, I’m not sure if it wouldn’t be a good idea to go back out into the world now and take this option into consideration when you’re a little older.”
“But you want to recruit me.” Matt kind of understood why Coulson was saying all of this first, but he still felt a little impatient to see the point gotten to. “I mean, why else wouldn’t my supervisor already be appointed and here? Obviously it would be you if I said yes, but if I said no then you’d make it somebody else.”
“You’re smart, Mr. Murdock.” Not really; Matt couldn’t help but think that had been pretty obvious. “That’s one of the reasons that, yes, I would like to eventually see you join S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“Eventually? But you want me to start now.”
“A little, yes. Even if you agree to it, you wouldn’t be doing much just yet. Your life right now would still be pretty much normal, at least as much as is practical for a boy of gifts that affect his basic experience of the world as fundamentally as yours do. You’d probably live with the family of one of our agents, or someone friendly to us, someone who would certainly know about your abilities. Your schooling would remain your priority; you’d just have a few more lessons after it along with your homework. You could even go to college before entering one of our academies to train full time, if you wanted. As I said, you could change your mind at any time, and we wouldn’t require you to stop living with your foster family. You wouldn’t even necessarily start right away if you do say yes now. We usually don’t recruit children, Mr. Murdock; we’d very much be playing this by ear, and I want to do this ethically.”
The thing was, it sounded appealing to Matt. These few months around S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, all of them wanting to help him, even when he knew more about them and their organization than they’d wanted him to know, had left him wanting to be one of them. He knew they did good in the world, kept people safe, and to do that was a desire that ran deep within him. Maybe it wasn’t entirely wise of him, but he trusted Phil Coulson, more than he’d ever trusted anyone besides his dad, and he liked him.
“I can guess what your biggest objection is,” he said.
“My father,” Matt admitted readily. “He didn’t want me to fight. I’d have to as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent; I know that.”
“What it sounds like to me he wanted, Mr. Murdock, if for you to have a better and happier life than he did. I’m sure, also, he took heed of your considerable intelligence, and wanted you to make use of that.”
“He did,” said Matt. “Absolutely.” He tried to beat the guilt down as he thought about his father, remember what the psychologist had said to him over it.
What Coulson knew about too, and he said, “You can’t hold yourself responsible for his choices, and you can’t make every one of yours based off what he wanted; at some point you have to think about what you want for your own life. And even if being an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t quite what he would have wanted for you, I think it’s not that far off. I think with us you could reach your full potential, with your brawn and your brains, and also with your wish to help people-I don’t think you even realize how unusually strong that is within you, Mr. Murdock, and how valuable your feelings there are.
In any case,” he finished, “it’ll be at least another day before we can even begin to make arrangements. You should think about it for a little bit, give me an answer tonight, maybe. Until then, if you have any questions, I’ll keep myself available.”
“Thank you,” Matt said politely, standing up. He would think about it, of course. He wasn’t sure he’d say yes right now; part of him felt like he didn’t want this, not yet. But he was pretty sure that, sooner or later, he would say yes, and after that, he wouldn’t change his mind.
Meanwhile, there was his supervisor and his old friend and mentor, because of course he came to see Matt, showing up when he’d put most of his things away and was lying on top of his new sheets, his bare arms against them. He thought certain people in the Sandbox were still too excited about the ongoing project to find high-tech textiles that didn’t irritate his skin. Not that he wasn’t grateful. His first year here at the Academy he’d barely been able to stand being in his uniform; now they’d made him ones he felt blissfully comfortable in.
Agent Coulson’s grin was very easy for him to hear now. “I see you’re testing out Agent Logaard’s latest invention,” he said, as Matt pulled himself up into a sitting position. “Be sure to send the Sandbox some feedback; I think she’s hanging on it.”
“I still think she’d have more important things to do,” Matt commented. It really did stun him how much time they must spend designing these things for him.
“Everyone gets tired of robots and weapons,” said Coulson, sitting down next to him. “She probably works on them whenever she needs a break.” At least he wasn’t trying to preach to Matt about how he deserved to not dread his linens in that over-solicitous way Agents Logaard and Simmons had spoken to him, when he’d submitted to having the latter try to gauge his sensitivity to things in person a month or so ago.
“I want to see how you were holding up,” he continued. “I know it’s always a bit much to deal with, going on a mission for the first time, especially when you’re not even done here yet. Plus I heard about what happened.”
“I…do you really think I was wrong, not to kill the target?” He should say he was sorry, he knew, but he never could be, not for not killing someone.
“Well,” said Coulson, “first of all, Ms. Page wasn’t the target. She was merely one of his minions, and considering her age and history, I would say you were dead right when you argued to Agent Sitwell that she was more another victim of him than anything else. Secondly, whatever others may tell you, the truth is you showed no weakness when you chose to bring her back with you. If anything, you showed strength, being brave enough to do that with someone who you couldn’t even be certain wouldn’t try to kill you. And as I said to you ten years ago, Mr. Murdock, your compassion and value for human life is something far rarer than even your having superpowers. It meant one more person protected on that mission, one more life saved.
And thirdly, I actually have news for you about her: she’s through all the evaluations, and she’s been granted admission into the Academy. She’s got huge gaps of knowledge, of course, and in places where most of our first-year students don’t, but there are also areas where she’s more advanced than them. I met with her briefly just now, and I believe she could be a brilliant S.H.I.E.L.D. agent if all goes well.”
“I’m glad for that,” said Matt, and he meant it. The conversations he’d had with the girl himself had made him think redemption was just what she needed, that she had much good to give to the world.
“You should be,” said Coulson. “You not only saved a life, you gave someone a future when she may not have had much of one otherwise, and you’ve gained S.H.I.E.L.D. an asset, though I think you care about the latter less than the former.”
“You know me,” grinned Matt. “Though I’m happy for S.H.I.E.L.D. too. After all, they gave me my life back too, ten years ago.” He did sometimes think, looking back on Coulson’s actions then, that perhaps his intentions had not been quite so noble as some might have liked. But the news and praise both had made his heart light with relief and joy, the balm he’d needed after Agent Sitwell’s upbraiding, and today he was willing to only be grateful for it all.
Though even so, when Coulson spoke again, Matt could hear clear concern in his voice. “Agent Sitwell is not a bad man, you know,” he said. “But then, I think you know that already, and that his words trouble you more because of it.”
“I know it already,” Matt confirmed. “I know why he saw it the way he did. I did feel a little worried about it, too. Not about risking my own life, I was willing to do that for a chance at saving hers. But I did put him and my two classmates at risk too. I understand that.” He hadn’t asked either of them for their opinion on his actions. He’d been afraid of them volunteering it and trying to lie to him; he wasn’t sure either of them had quite realized he’d be able to tell, or whether either of them weren’t the kind of special operative who had trained so that he wouldn’t be able to anyway. He'd also been afraid of their true opinions even more.
But Coulson’s was, “If your two classmates have learned their lessons, including the ones the events of these past couple of weeks have taught them, they will know those are exactly the risks they will spend their lives taking for the sake of others. They shouldn’t view it as any different as stepping into the line of fire to protect a civilian bystander, or, for that matter, a prisoner under their protection. Of course, those of us who supervise, like Agent Sitwell, will feel a good amount of worry for the subordinates they’re responsible for. I admit, it is a lot harder for us to remember to keep a balance between protecting our people and doing the right thing. Something for you to worry about someday, perhaps.”
“You think I might go that far?” asked Matt. That wasn’t actually the career he currently planned for himself. “You know what electives I’m taking.”
“The legal ones, yes.” Legal ones which gave him credits other schools would recognize. He did things right, he could have his Bachelor’s well before he turned thirty. When he was young he had wanted to be a lawyer, and he had never given that dream up entirely. When he was too old or too injured to work as a specialist anymore, S.H.I.E.L.D. had need of lawyers, and they might even pay for law school. “And if that’s how you go, I’m sure we’ll all be glad for it. But if there’s one thing my experience as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. has taught me, it’s that life never goes as you think it will. Neither of us have any idea where we’ll be in ten more years’ time, Mr. Murdock. Maybe all will go according to plan, maybe nothing will. Be sure you prepare for both eventualities.”
“Thanks for the advice,” said Matt. “I’ll be sure to keep it in mind.”
“Good. Because if there’s one thing I’m certain of, Mr. Murdock, especially after hearing about how this first mission of yours went? It’s that you are going to have a very interesting career indeed.”